I saw and liked the movie Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which inspired the TV series of the same name; and while I was never a hardcore fan of the series (I don't watch enough TV to be a hardcore fan of anything!), when it was syndicated in this area several years ago I used to watch scattered episodes whenever I could, and mostly liked what I saw. So when I had a chance to pick up this spin-off collection of short stories at a yard sale some years ago, I did. Finding myself between novels recently, I picked it up as a fill-in read, frankly not expecting a lot from it. The quality of the stories was a pleasant surprise (though more in the four and 1/2 star range --but I rounded up).
My theory of the life cycle of TV programs, based on several examples, runs like this: show starts with a good premise and good execution and gets loyal fans; a few seasons in (usually), the producers decide to forestall possible fan boredom by introducing increasingly far-out over-arching plot arcs that take the series away from its original basic concept; as fan loyalty slips (because they're no longer getting what originally attracted them), the producers apply more and more of the supposed corrective course; and finally the series expires. From what I could see, this happened with Buffy. Fortunately for my reading enjoyment, these stories are set in the summer between the show's first and second seasons, picking up immediately after the finale (which I actually never saw) of Season 1, in which Buffy defeated and destroyed the Master Vampire, Johann Heinrich Nest (but not before being herself clinically dead for a couple of minutes after he tried to drown her). The five authors of the six stories (Cameron Dokey contributed two) are all series fans and all professional writers of genre, YA and spin-off fiction. (Paul Ruditis, at the time, had the least writing experience, though his first novel was awaiting publication.) They were aware of each others' work, and the stories fit into a framework, but are also basically self-contained.
The tone and content of the stories reflects that of the early series episodes, as I remember them, and the characters incarnate their TV counterparts very faithfully. Two stories follow Buffy, spending the summer with her dad in L.A. (her parents are divorcing); the other four follow Buffy's Watcher, Rupert Giles, his romantic interest Jenny Calendar, Angel, Willow and Xander as they hold the fort in Sunnydale. (The cover art shows Cordelia rather than Jenny, but the former is said to be gone on vacation and doesn't appear in this book.) Like the series, some of these stories have certain internal credibility problems: a 16-year-old Slayer mixing secret vampire fighting with high school is probably not a situation a real Watcher's Council fighting real vampires, if they existed, would accept; Sunnydale has inconsistent characteristics of both a small town and a large metropolis, which sit uneasily with each other and don't make for the greatest verisimilitude; and there are aspects of the plotting, especially in the last two stories, that don't stand examination very well. But the stories all feature supernatural challenges and jeopardies with meaningful consequences, affecting characters that you care about and who have to reach inside themselves for the courage and strength to overcome in the situations; their interpersonal dynamics are affecting; and the evocative prose in some stories, notably Michelle West's "Dust," can have unexpected emotional depth. The book also offers at least one jaw-dropping surprise, and some moments of real tension (as well as a leaven of humor in places).
"Dust" is probably my favorite of the stories (even though the dynamics of exactly how the underlying supernatural situation works are never really explained); beyond its effectiveness as supernatural fiction, it gives a poignant look at the pains a culture of divorce can inflict on today's families. A close second is "No Place Like..." with its masterful use of actual Mexican folklore surrounding the Day of the Dead. Nancy Holder's "Absalom Rising" evokes the darkest feeling of supernatural menace of any of the stories.
In terms of texture --explaining the web of relationships, describing the settings, and delineating the characters-- the writers here largely presuppose that the readers have watched Season 1 of the series and are fans; they clearly assume the familiarity this group would already have. However, those who just enjoy good supernatural short fiction, without really being familiar with the series, could still enjoy the collection on those terms. But a knowledge of the series enhances the read. (It can also impart a bittersweet quality in places, knowing what became of certain characters and relationships.) For me as a librarian, I'd have to say that seeing Giles front and center for a change in several stories was satisfying; it's nice to see the inherently heroic qualities of librarians save the day!